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Seven Days in May (Movie review)

Mike Bobbitt

Staff member
Directing Staff
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Seven Days in May
Movie Review

Plot Details: This review reveals major details about the movie‘s plot.

With all the present fun and games surrounding the recent US Presidential election, it seemed an appropriate time to review this particular movie. No matter how the present mess turns out (still undetermined as I write this) at least it can be argued that the rules were followed. Those of us lucky to reside in nations where our leaders are elected often forget that this is not the norm in other parts of the world. Military dictatorships and the coup d‘etat are often the usual if not accepted form of Government in many nations even today.

This is the subject of this 1964 film. The President of the United States, not an overly popular choice to begin with, has made a foreign policy choice which appears to have angered most of the populace and a large cadre of his enemies. He has signed a major nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union and thereby hopefully ended both the Cold War and the imminent threat of MAD ( Mutual Assured Destruction).

This action has angered a large segment of Congress, the military, and industry leaders. The later two of these whom of course rely on an ever present threat to further their own ambitions and profits. A plot is undertaken by the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to overthrow the Presidency and set up a new Government with himself and his political allies in charge. Naturally their first order of business will be to rescind the treaty.

The CJCS has all the ace cards in this one. He is supported by a fair number of senior military leaders, the balance either pledging neutrality or kept out of the loop. He has both political and industrial backers, and the considerable resources of the Military at his command. The planning and preparation has been conducted in absolute secrecy. Finally the Chairman has one other asset. He is very popular, a decorated war hero.

In contrast the President is without any weapons at his disposal. There are only a few close allies he can trust. He is running out of time, with only seven days remaining until the coup is enacted under the guise of a general military readiness alert. Finally he has no proof with which to denounce his enemies. One of his few allies is the Pentagon Staff Officer who inadvertently discovered the plan and has brought it to his attention.

Even this officer is less than a perfect ally. He respects and admires the CJCS, and believes the President‘s treaty is a disaster in the making. It is only his untouchable obedience to his oath of service that makes him side with the President.

To put his scenario in a modern context imagine the following. An average to mediocre President (and I‘ll refrain from using the present two battling it out as examples) say Jimmy Carter, makes a foreign policy blunder. A decorated and popular General, say Colin Powell decides that removing him from office by force is in the best interests of the country.

All that reluctantly stands in his way is an ambitious military officer with political connections, say Oliver North. Improbable yeah I know, they‘re even from differing administrations, but you get the idea. That is what makes the concept so frightening and this movie so enthralling.

To be honest the movie could be considered a little dated in some respects. Set at the height of the Cold War, it shows a future that while at the time was a real possibility, is now a dwindling memory. However, this is only a minor distraction. It is the time frame that it is set in that makes it so effective. An "updated" made for cable remake a few years ago with Forrest Whittaker, bombed and faded into obscurity. The original was nominated for two Academy Awards and remains a classic.

What makes this work as a tension filled drama is the excellent cast and the good script and direction they are given to work with. The cast includes Burt Lancaster as the megalomaniac and paternalistic CJCS General Scott, and Frederic March as the noble if perhaps naive President.

Kirk Douglas puts in an above average performance as Lt. Colonel Jiggs, the staff office with divided loyalties who must eventually decide which is more important, his own beliefs are the rules he swore to uphold. Martin Balsam and Edmond O‘Brien, in his Academy Award nominated and Golden Globe winning role, lead the list of supporting actors.

The screenplay was written by Rod Sterling and is directed by John Frankenheimer. The best scenes are those of the confrontations between the various protagonists. The scenes are closely filmed, almost claustrophobic and set for the most part in the halls of power, the White House, and the Pentagon. It is many ways a stage play or akin to one of those early live television dramas.

This is not an action adventure, film in any sense of the word. For those who prefer that type of film, expect to be disappointed. That is not to say you won‘t be thrilled and entertained, but just in a different way. While now may be an appropriate time to view it, it is one worth watching at any time.